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Facebook’s TV Device Excels at Video Calls But Can’t Replace a Set-Top Box

Mark Gurman
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Facebook’s TV Device Excels at Video Calls But Can’t Replace a Set-Top Box

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook’s new Portal TV video chat device won’t do much to take away share from Apple Inc., Roku Inc. or Amazon in the TV space. But unlike the regular version of the device, its functionality is unique and compelling enough that some consumers will want to add it to their living rooms — if they are willing to spend more than they would on any Amazon or Roku box. 

The concept is simple enough that it’s surprising another technology giant hasn’t released such a device: a gadget that turns your big-screen TV into a video conferencing hub. The gadget can be situated either below or above your screen and basically turns your television into a jumbo-sized video chat screen. 

The camera that comes with it is similar to the one on the Facebook Portal smart display: It can track a user as they walk around a room, zooming in and out automatically. With Facebook’s 8-inch or 10-inch Portal, the combination of mediocre smart display functionality and video chatting on a tablet-sized screen wasn’t enough to be compelling. Harnessing a video camera to your TV, however, vastly improves the overall experience and is novel enough for some customers to want to spend the $150.

The video chat feature lets users watch content together from Facebook Watch or overlay visual effects, but the simple ability to converse with someone on a screen between 40 and 100 inches is the big draw here.

Given that the device has a camera and a microphone, its privacy implications are critical. The Portal TV is similar in that respect to its non-TV counterparts, but given that it’s not a traditional smart speaker, it feels less intrusive. Still, in order to fully power off the camera and microphone, there’s a physical slider on the front of the product that covers the camera, and a button on the side to turn off both the camera and the microphone.

Like regular Portals, how you use the device informs which ads you see on Facebook’s websites. Commands for the on-board voice assistants (Hey Portal and Alexa) are still recorded, but there’s an option to disable that feature on-device for Facebook’s assistant. Having two onboard assistants is still somewhat confusing. For example, you can turn off your TV by saying “Hey Portal, turn off the TV,” but you can’t do it with Alexa. The plus side of the built-in assistants on the Portal TV however is you can shout commands directly at the box, instead of the remote, like some of Amazon’s latest boxes but unlike Apple’s offering. 

Read more: New Facebook Portal Review: Echo Show Rival Lacks Privacy, Apps

Even with novel video chat capabilities, the Portal TV still can’t replace your set-top box. It lacks any semblance of a proper media offering apart from STARZ, Showtime, and Sling TV, plus music services like Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora. The device is supposed to include Amazon Prime Video, but it was not present on a test unit — the company says it’s coming in December. Facebook is once again highlighting its own Facebook Messenger, Facebook Watch and WhatsApp ecosystem rather than creating a platform that can become an entertainment fixture in your living room. 

The device lacks support for popular video streaming platforms including Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu, many TV networks, or popular games. Until Facebook adds major content apps to the Portal TV or opens up the device widely to developers like Roku, Amazon and Apple have, it won’t double as your set-top box. At $150, it’s the same price as the entry-level Apple TV and more expensive than every Roku and Amazon box, so its content offering should be much stronger.

Still, it’s the only TV box from a major player with video conferencing capabilities, and for some users, that will be enough. Just don’t forget to buy an HDMI cable.

To contact the author of this story: Mark Gurman in Los Angeles at mgurman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Colum Murphy

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